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25 years ago from today, the Berlin Wall stopped being the Iron Curtain that had divided humanity into The East and The West. As we can see the news full of pictures from November 9th, 1989 these days, I’d like to share quite a personal view of someone who was raised in The West and moved to what used to be The East as a young adult. For 12 of the 25 years since the Wall came down I’ve been living beyond the former edge of my world.
Everything looks very nice where I live. You might have heard of Babelsberg, part of the city of Potsdam, as a place where movies are made, and have been made for almost a century. Even Hollywood drops by from time to time to shoot productions here, like for example Valkyrie starring Tom Cruise.
The part of Babelsberg my wife Tina and I have been living in since 2002 (she since 1998 even) could be described as a middle- to upper-class neighborhood. Larger houses and majestic old mansions coast the shores of Lake Griebnitzsee. People are friendly. You’ll be greeted on the street whether you know the person or not. On the weekends, at least in summertime, tourists, bicyclists and all kinds of holiday folk can be seen strolling around the old buildings where movie stars used to live, and later on populate the terraces of the Italian ice cream parlor and pizzeria.
It is, indeed, a peaceful place.
It wasn’t always.
The mansion I’m looking at out of my window, a mighty one that has been restored very accurately, had a famous inhabitant in 1945: Harry Truman. The president of the United States of America was staying at that very house across the street when the command was issued for the world’s first nuclear strike against the city of Hiroshima. Only a few years ago was the square in front of the mansion renamed into “Hiroshima and Nagasaki Square” and a memorial was erected by a Japanese master stonemason.
When you take the short path from the right side of Truman Villa down to the lake, you enter a former military zone. The narrow path along the shore used to be where GDR soldiers used to go on patrol. As everywhere along the Wall, they had order to shoot everyone who would try to cross the border to West Berlin, here: lake Griebnitzsee.
The very same path is where I have been taking my morning or evening walks for 12 years now.
This part of Babelsberg, close to the lake and border, used to be a restricted area. You would need special allowance to live here and a special passport (or at least a special entry in your passport). Obviously only certain people would be allowed this close to the border, and those would be government staff of some sort, police men, judges and so forth, and their families.
Until 2006, our neighbors were an older couple living in the apartment below. They had been living in the very same apartment for over 40 years. He had been a judge in his time.
Both of them were friendly old people, a little over-talkative sometimes, but nice. We exchanged Christmas cards and other pleasantries for years. They died in 2006 in 2007. When their son came to clear out the basement, the street in front of the house became a museum of socialist artefacts of daily life and furniture for one afternoon.
I have never asked them, so I don’t know for sure, but our friendly neighbor couple might have been around to witness the 40 and more nightly shots when Günter Wiedenhöft tried to cross frozen Lake Griebnitzsee in the night of December 5th, 1962. Whoever lived here back then cannot have had any chance to not be a witness. Far softer sounds are carried by the water all across the area around the lake. Günter Wiedenhöft did not get shot, though. He drowned to death. His unscathed body was found in March 1963 when the ice had melted.
There is plenty of forest around here, mostly pine and beech. Tina and I often hike along the trails of Parforceheide, an area of heath and open woodland, about a ten minutes walk from our home.
Part of that beautiful landscape is known as the former Death Strip—the part of nowhere-land beyond the Wall no civil human being was supposed to enter, nor leave alive and breathing.
At the side of the street from where Tina and I enter Death Strip nowadays to take our walk, an orange pillar has been erected. It tells the story of Peter Hauptmann. Hauptmann, a retired Volkspolizist, was shot in the night of Saturday, April 24th 1965, after having had an argument with two border guards he decided to walk away from towards his house. He died from his injuries on May 3rd, 1965.
I was raised in the city of Bonn. Bonn is rather a small town than a city, and a lovely one. Yet it was the capital of Bundesrepublik Deutschland (West Germany) until I had long moved to Hamburg and later to Berlin as a young adult. It’s about 600 kilometers from where I live now.
As a child, East Germany was just as far away for me as China. We did not have any relatives or friends over here, no personal contact, so I just knew from my school books there was that “other Germany” where things had gone “wrong” somehow after the war.
I couldn’t have cared less. America—through music, McDonalds and other cultural achievements that had swashed over—was both closer and cooler.
It wasn’t before I visited Berlin for the first time in my life, between the coming-down of the Wall on November 9th, 1989, and the actual political reunion of both Germanies on October 3rd, 1990, that it would dawn on my adolescent mind I was literally experiencing history being made.
During that summer of ’90, East Berlin looked pretty much the way it must have looked like on November 8th the year before. Except what was left of the Wall was being hammered apart by thousands of souvenir hunters, and Mitte beyond Brandenburger Tor was already bursting from tourists. (Hasn’t changed in 25 years.)
I’ll never forget standing in front of Palast der Republik—a monumental architectural symbol of a totalitarian system that had failed just as monumentally—looking at a broken-down, left-behind baby-blue Trabant car: a much longed-for symbol of personal liberty during 40 already left-behind years, now disturbingly unspectacularly rotting in the middle of busy Berlin Mitte.
As a born German of my generation you’re not proud being a German. At least not more than you’re proud (or not) having been born at all or wearing whatever color of hair you wear.
But having witnessed the latest November 9th in German history (we have more than one to stay aware of) as a child on TV, and having been able to later seek and find all the traces of my own country’s recent history strolling the lanes and alleyways of Berlin and Potsdam, I may say: I love you, Motherland, Fatherland, parents and grandparents of Germany who made all this happen.
Post image: Lake Griebnitzsee in Winter, CC BY NC SA